Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887
In her three novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and ¡Yo! (1997), all of them autobiographical, Julia Alvarez tells of how she and her family, persecuted during the regime of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo, were forced from their country and resettled in Queens, New York during the 1960’s, when she was in her teens. Julia’s family moved from a position of privilege in their native country to one of marginal existence and frequent humiliation in the family’s adopted home.
Taunted by schoolmates who called her “Spic,” mocked her accent, and threw stones at her, Julia was determined to learn English so well that people would one day take notice of how she used the language. She recounts how the early indignities she suffered at the hands of ruffian classmates made her determined to use writing as a means of revenge upon them. Writing also offered her a means of finding her own identity.
Something to Declare is so titled because Alvarez, in answering questions from audiences she has addressed throughout the country, boiled the questions down essentially to inquiries about whether she had anything left to say. Her resolute answer is that she indeed still has something to declare. This book’s twenty-four essays are divided into two sections, the first reflecting on her growing up as a part of two distinct cultures, the second focusing on what it is that made her a writer and what underlies her writing.
Although this collection of essays is written at a level that a broad range of general readers, particularly young adults, can easily understand, the subtleties, political and psychological, that lurk beneath their surfaces result in a complex presentation. After one has finished reading the essays, these subtleties suddenly come to the fore, causing readers to reconsider what they have read in a broad and sophisticated context. Many of Alvarez’s personal revelations become political revelations. The Trujillo regime casts a long, dark shadow over the essays, even those in which Trujillo is not specifically mentioned.
During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Alvarez’s parents and the adult members of her extended family lived in constant fear because the father, Papi, and other members of this distinguished family were members of an underground bent on overthrowing Trujillo. As the political environment deteriorated, the family was placed under virtual house arrest. Although its members went about their daily routines, the driveway leading to their home was blocked at night by the black automobiles of the secret police. The family, although under constant threat, shielded their children from the fear that most of the time gripped the adult members.
In one telling episode, Alvarez recounts how she broke a blue crystal ball poised on a pedestal beneath a tamarind tree in the garden. She and her cousin took rakes and tried to conceal her destruction, but Mami appeared and looked accusingly at the quick- witted Julia, who, fabricating a tale, told her that the two of them had rakes because they had chased off the man who had broken the ball. The family, thinking that one of Trujillo’s guards had been on the grounds and realizing how vulnerable they all were because of their involvement in the underground, shrank back, terrified by the possibility that the story Julia had concocted to save her own neck might be true.
A large part of each essay concerns the coming of age of a sensitive young girl who, because she was thrust into a second culture at an age when she was forming her basic cultural notions, felt a degree of alienation from each of her two worlds. Members of her family who remained in the Dominican Republic sensed what it was like suddenly to be pulled from one culture and thrust headlong into another, particularly when the dislocation imposed upon those undergoing it involved a whole new socioeconomic order.
The family that remained at home concluded that what had happened to Julia and her three sisters “was that they had settled in the United States of America where people got lost because they didn’t have their family around them to tell them who they were.” The Alvarez girls essentially knew who they were, but they were fully aware that “in America, you didn’t go by what you family had been in the past, you created yourself anew.” Many of these essays pinpoint the moments in which Julia Alvarez had to struggle to create herself anew.
At age thirty-nine, Julia marries Bill, a physician from Nebraska, himself transplanted to Vermont. This marriage is her third, his second. At fifty, he has grown children. Despite his medical training and practice, he is at heart the Nebraska farm boy who rushes home from his day at work to tend the fields he plants. His parents live nearby. Julia, though, cannot feel a part of his family. She laments that had she and Bill married earlier in life, “I would think of our family as the family I talk about when I talk about family.” Julia sees herself as an interloper who has come into Bill’s family, which “has allowed me to perch on one of the branches of its family tree, even though it is clear that I am a bird of a different feather altogether, a tropical parrot, say, who has flown in from her jungle to this northern forest of pine and fir trees.” Such a statement is not a complaint; rather, it is a shrewd, dispassionate, and honest observation of Alvarez’s situation.
It is clear that Alvarez can never return to the life she lived in the Dominican Republic. Through many of the essays run feminist observations about the lives women are forced to lead in that country. Young boys in these essays are frequently asked what they want to do when they grow up. The young girls are always told that when they grow up, they will be wives and mothers; for them, there are no other options. The one aunt who at thirty remains unmarried is in her unenviable state because she knows Latin and reads.
Julia and her sisters can not turn back now that they have experienced life as women in the United States. By Dominican standards, they have been thoroughly corrupted. By American standards, they are perfectly normal women, expecting to contribute to society according to their various talents and abilities.
It does not take long for Julia to figure out that she has taken on a new identity by living in the United States. At seventeen, she returns to the Dominican Republic for the summer, this time going there alone because her sisters are going to camp in the United States. Julia is to be looked after by her cousin Utcho, twenty years older than she, and his wife Betty, respectable people who are associated with a social club in Santiago. The club gives a ball every year in which the young ladies of the community are introduced to society, much as they are at debutante balls in the United States.
Utcho and Betty treat Julia like a child, making her resentful. They live far from town, so there is little opportunity for Julia to have any social life. Finally, she teams up with Dilita, who has lived in Puerto Rico for some years and is, therefore, a hybrid like Julia. The two stay in town with Dilita’s aunt, Carmen, and date two boys. Julia is paired off with Manuel Gustavo, “Mangu” for short, a stocky provincial lad, marriage material for a girl like Julia had she stayed in the Dominican Republic. Julia soon realizes that she has nothing in common with Mangu, that they have nothing to talk about. With this revelation, she realizes that she is now poised between two worlds but is not a full-fledged member of either.
Even though the Alvarez family has left their native land, the importance of family remains paramount in their lives. No matter what Dominicans do, their families stick by them. So great is the familial bond, indeed, that it extends even to people who are not blood relatives but who have established some connection with a family. The dictator, Trujillo, became godfather to countless Dominican children during mass baptisms, realizing that in his culture, the godfather position is sacred. Godfathers are considered members of the family. Being in this position convinced him that family loyalty would be extended to him, insulating him from attack, although as his regime became increasingly oppressive the tactic ceased to work.
Also, as Trujillo’s regime began to weaken, he attacked not only those who threatened his security but also their entire families, because he knew that family solidarity in his country was such that if one family member was disaffected, the rest of the family members must harbor similar feelings. The importance of family made it doubly difficult for people such as Alvarez’s parents to make the break from Trujillo’s oppression, a break that was made possible only because Papi, a physician, through a friend in the United States, wangled a fellowship to study heart surgery in the United States. Trujillo granted him travel papers because there were no heart surgeons in his country. When Papi refused to go to the United States without his family, pleading quite convincingly that two years separated from his wife and children would present an undue hardship, the dictator relented and granted papers to the whole family, which left for the United States on that very night.
Alvarez’s chapters on writing are particularly compelling. Her ten commandments for writers, short axioms drawn from a broad range of writers and pundits, are also useful. Alvarez explains that she left teaching after she had finally been granted tenure because “I love teaching, and I didn’t know how to give it less than my all, now that I wanted to devote more of my time to writing.” Ever consumed by writing, Alvarez made great personal sacrifices to be a writer, giving up teaching not the greatest of them. Greater still was her discomfort at writing things with which her family would necessarily identify that might cause a breach between her and the most immediate members of her family, notably her parents and three sisters.
Nevertheless, her writing had to come first, so she pressed on with it. She tells of waking one night wracked by the fear of what would become of her if her husband deserted her, if her family was not there for her in her old age. She could not call her agent or her editor in the middle of the night for reassurance, so she called an aunt in the Dominican Republic and asked her whether she was going to give up on her if she did not like her forthcoming book. The aunt reassured her by saying that she knew how much writing meant to Julia and implying that family is family, that the bond is unbreakable and forever. She gave Alvarez her blessing before she hung up, as was her custom.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1952.
Christian Science Monitor. XC, October 29, 1998, p. B-7.
Library Journal. CXXIII, August, 1998), p. 88.
People Weekly. XLIX, September 21, 1998, p. 49.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 13, 1998, p. 67.